PsychBook Research

Collecting and analysing psychological research on the most popular social networking site in the world today.

What your Facebook ‘friends’ say about you

What are you actually doing, adding all those randoms?

It seems that Facebook friendships are related to something called ‘social capital’ – you might say you’re stocking up on party dollars! But they’re probably not going to be much use…

This research, from Nicole Ellison, Charles Steinfield and Cliff Lampe (2007, honestly didn’t make that last name up), entitled ‘The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites’, is, even at barely two years old, somewhat dated by Facebook research standards, but still very interesting. What the team is interested in is what people are using it for, and how it benefits them.

At the outset, it has to be said that this is a seriously limited study, though only in the way that most psychological research is limited – in that it was carried out entirely on American college students. Plus, as we know, Facebook began life there, but has now spread all across the world, beyond such a small focus. Hence, it shouldn’t be surprising that they found that first year students at Michigan State University used Facebook to keep in touch with friends from their former high school. Not exactly Noble Prize material.

However, they did find some interesting things around the idea of ‘social capital’, which is split into on the one hand ‘bridging social capital’, and ‘bonding social capital’. In general, Facebook use seems to be positively related to the former, which is essentially collection of weak ties – people you know but wouldn’t rely on for emotional support. So Facebook allows you to collect contacts and acquaintances, which isn’t such a bad thing, though not unexpected.

Also, in relation to self-esteem and satisfaction with life, it seems that their relationship to bridging social capital is moderated by intensity of Facebook use. Or in other words, people with low self-esteem and low satisfaction with life will experience greater bridging social if they use Facebook, than if they didn’t. This is a pretty significant and powerful finding for Facebook – it means it is helping the less psychologically healthy improve their quality of social life. In their own words:

Facebook use may be helping to overcome barriers faced by students who have low satisfaction and low self esteem. Because bridging social capital provides benefits such as increased information and opportunities, we suspect that participants who use Facebook in this way are able to get more out of their college experience. (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007, n.p.)

But only to an extent. In terms of ‘bonding social capital’, relationships were not seen quite so strongly. While it was predicted by high self esteem, satisfaction with university life, and Facebook use, it only accounted for 22% of the variance (as opposed to 46% for the bridging). As the authors put it themselves Facebook “… can lower barriers to participation and therefore may encourage the formation of weak ties but not necessarily create the close kinds of relationships that are associated with bonding social capital.” (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007, n.p.).

So, there you have it – the research which finally says what you’ve been suspicious of all along: using Facebook isn’t going to help you develop deep and meaningful relationships that you don’t already have.

Again, this is a good, but not a great paper. No real origin of ‘social capital’ is provided. An non-chronological explanation of Granovetter (1982) of Putnam’s (2000) distinction between ‘bridging’ and ‘bonding social capital’ is given. Some of the items on the scales are a bit odd – like ‘About how many total Facebook friends do you have at MSU or elsewhere?’ – why not ‘how many Facebook friends do you have?’.  The authors were also very proud of the fact that they found that Facebook was only being used between people who already knew each other, which they inferred from the results achieved by the following item ‘I use Facebook to meet new people’. Perhaps not so current in 2007, but I reckon if something like  ‘I sometimes add people I have never met’ would produced very different results today.

But that’s another days’ work. Next article – how many Facebook friends should you have?

Categories: Papers